Responding to critics of the movement to reform criminal justice

Some readers took the time to offer frank criticism — some online and some offline — of the piece I published last week about the movement to reform criminal justice by shifting resources from incarceration to treatment. I appreciate the dialog.

Most people I know have been victims of crime in some small or large way. We certainly all fear crime. All public officials share the goal of making the public safer from criminals. Keeping the public safe is, in fact, the top goal of government.

One big reason that responsible politicians, conservative and liberal alike, are talking about reducing incarceration is simply this: Past a certain point — incarceration is not a cost-effective way to make the public safer. And we’ve gone way past the point.

Almost all criminals suffer from one or more or all of the following: limited ability, mental illness, addiction, post-traumatic stress, or abject under-education and poverty. If we fail to recognize and address these factors head-on, then we just are not doing all we can to protect the public.

That doesn’t mean we should put the needs of criminals ahead of the needs of victims. There is a lot we can and should be doing to care better for the survivors of serious crime. Nor, for that matter, should we put the needs of criminals above those of any hard-working, law-abiding citizen.

The question is: What works? Some argue for more incarceration, believing that if crime had stiffer consequences, criminals would be deterred and the public would be safer. Conversely, they fear that a reduction in incarceration will endanger the public. But for any well-balanced person with a little bit of foresight, crime is already a massively unattractive option. In most cases, criminals commit crimes because they are — for whatever combination of reasons — unable to think clearly about consequences.

Certainly, there are a few people who truly live to make others suffer. Those are the people we are afraid of and we need to lock them away for life. But most of the roughly 20,000 people in Massachusetts jails and prisons are not evil geniuses or sadists. They are damaged people who have made bad mistakes – bad mistakes that harm others.

If we want to prevent crime and really protect the public, we need reduce the problems that push people into crime. Almost all of those now incarcerated will be on the streets in a few years, and when they do hit the streets, we want them to be in a better position to live normally, not a worse position. We want them to have a plan for where they are going to live. We want them to have some sense of how to behave in the work place and perhaps some skills and a job to go to.

This is not soft-thinking. It reflects a common sense and realistic perspective on where “tough on crime” thinking has gotten us. The movement to reform on criminal justice is not a progressive movement. Of course, progressives have always talked this way — and we have not always been right. But the pendulum has swung too far towards high incarceration and leading conservatives have also embraced reform.

To see the case for reform made from the right, visit, for example, this website: RightOnCrime.Com. The right and the left are both starting to get past the knee jerk answers and get smart on crime.

I’m truly grateful for those who take the time to let me know what they think.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

28 replies on “Responding to critics of the movement to reform criminal justice”

  1. Will –
    Thank you for your further explanation of your well-developed position on reduction of Massachusetts’ over-aggressive criminal justice policies and excessive incarceration practices. We need dramatic new legislation to reduce mandatory minimum drug sentences, reform bail practices and RMV collateral sanctions, limit prison construction, invest in education and job-training, and provide support for ex-inmates to facilitate their return to productive lives in the community. I trust you will support the Justice Reinvestment Act and related measures to make progress on this significant, painful issue.

  2. Will,

    You are absolutely sound in your reasoning and sentiments here. If some people misunderstood or simply disagreed, this ought to clarify for them what you propose.

    Now, let’s see that it gets fine!

  3. Will,

    Thank you for clarifying your position and helping our state and country move from “tough on crime” to “smart on crime”. It’s long past time to reduce the population of our prisons and give people better options.

  4. Advanced thinkers in medicine study Mind-Body Medicine. Some – like Jason Satterfield, who teaches a Great Courses series of the same name – investigate th Biopsychosocial Model.

    I applaud you for your nuanced response to critics and commentators, and hope you might find the time to explore this holistic approach to what ails not only the individual but our society.

    True healing – for the incarcerated as well as for the society who might feel endangered after their release – needs the kind of search for root causes of criminal behavior that you identify, and thereafter holistic (and therefore complex) rehabbing and resilience-enhancement of the incarcerated person so s/he as well as society can shape a compatible future.

  5. Thank you for your addressing the concerns and fears of those who oppose reducing sentence length and providing rehabilitation services. Helping those who are incarcerated actually would help those of us on the outside as much as it would those inside.

  6. Will, Eloquently stated. I couldn’t agree with you more. I’ve visited an incarcerated man for the last 20 years, and he tells me most inmates want to do right upon their release. Problem is, we make it so hard for them, especially with restrictive housing policies (this man couldn’t live with his mother when he was released, as she lives in subsidized housing, and the rules prevent it). We sorely need more and better re-entry programs.

  7. I think we already have the largest incarceration rate in the world…shall we just imprison everyone for minor law infractions? I don’t know who, why or how legitimate any criticism of your opinions would be.

  8. Thank you for your work on this issue. Mass incarceration is bad for communities and families and helps fuel a vicious cycle of poverty. Ways to move beyond it are welcome.

  9. Thanks for your compassion and your relantless use of reason in this issue were vengeance guides us too often.

  10. Thanks for your fulsome thoughts, Will. Very well put.

    Society pays multiple times for crime: victims pay, taxpayers pay, the criminal justice system pays, and perps pay, through jail time and then after their release (thanks to things like three-strikes laws, disenfranchisement, a dearth of employment opportunities, and general stigmatization).

    If criminal justice is about compensating victims and their families, it doesn’t seem to satisfy much. If it’s about rehabilitation, it’s only randomly successful. If it’s about punishment, then it works really well. But what does punishment achieve for the convicted and for society, and to what extent can a society that punishes errant behavior while widely failing to reward striving and sacrifice be called just?

    Public policy has largely failed to deal with criminality and its causes. We spend a lot of time and energy figuring out ways to recycle paper and plastics. Why can’t we figure out how to stop sending so many people to landfills we call prisons? We are wasting human resources and paying quite a steep price.

  11. Will, you are a visionary. I am not that familiar with the incarceration issues regarding the Commonwealth. I am familiar with the reasons for the substantial increase in incarceration rates in the federal system. First of all the main reason for the unprecedented increase in Federal incarnation rates is due to two factors. Money and Politics. Prisons are a business, just look at the rise in Private Prisons. Why would anyone want to own a prison. Because it pays. Private prisons are usually guaranteed a 90% occupancy. How do you think they get the occupants, from the draconian laws that make incarnation profitable.

    Lets look at some of the laws that were passed to make people feel “SAFE”.
    The so called “war on crime”. Translation, Let’s figure a way to put more African Americans in Prison. Now you might say the is not true, but it is. Remember, President Bill Clinton’s
    war on crime bill in 1994. Well lets look at that period it is my understanding that Bill was losing the South in his reelection bid. what better way to win over the southern vote than to incarcerate more African Americans and Hispanics. After all they are all criminals (just ask Trump). In addition, I was in a federal prison camp in South Carolina and saw first hand the attitude towards African Americans and Hispanics. I also wondered why the occupants had to complete census forms. I later learned that the inmates were considered residents of the town and of course that helped the town get funds from the government, what is odd about this is that inmates are counted for the census but are deprived of their right to vote. I wonder what would happen of inmates were given their voting rights what politicians would do. They would probably be standing outside with banners and loudspeakers the prisons touting how they will help inmates. After all, If inmates were given the right to vote while in prison, you would see how fast things would change.

  12. Thank you for your thoughtful posts and the link yo RightonCrime, since too often we liberals discount anything from the right.
    There used to be many programs where volunteers could go and help prisoners learn to read, write memoirs, learn simple arithmetic, all things necessary to survive. What prisons, if any, in Mass have such programs?

  13. I agree with you. More incarceration does not prevent crime or solve the problems that lead up to crime. Truly violent crimes need to be dealt with in a manner that keeps the public safe and helps to allay the fears of the victims. Crimes that are of a less severe nature need to be prevented by proper education and job training that would help people get out of the desperation of poverty. Better access to treatment for the mentally disabled and for those who have become addicted to alcohol and drugs could prevent crime as well. Better counseling for victims that incorporates the act of forgiveness to help relieve the pain they are feeling would also be beneficial.
    Please continue to work on this urgent problem.

    1. Nice summary of the alternatives, Patricia. I particularly like the idea of forgiveness counseling. Helping families get over fear of retribution or whatever scares them about having “their” felon released could potentially help too. In the game of vengeance, everybody loses something.

      My only quibble is with job training as a strategy to keep young people from committing crimes. Job training only works when there are jobs to fill and employers are willing to hire marginal candidates. I suspect that under-educated minority candidates won’t have it easy. Still, it’s possible that the training itself can give them new perspectives and some confidence that they can make it.

  14. A really hard problem. “Old fashioned” outlets like the colonies or expeditionary forces aren’t there, and 20,000 is still quite a few people. Maybe put some good business minds together could strive to set up a corporation of some sort to employ and provide some degree of segregation, which is part of the reality, given dilution is not so easy.

  15. I appreciate all of your hard work on this issue, and your keen insights into how to best protect all of us. I believe that large-scale incarceration has not worked very effectively, and is extremely cost-ineffective. You are on the right track with your analysis; please continue to work for solutions that help deter criminal activity, while providing value for our tax dollars.

  16. Thank you Senator for supporting and encouraging robust discussion of criminal justice reform. I join your passionate supporters who embrace your intellect, compassion, academic and professional achievements, and refusal to write off any individual as a loss.

    Again I make the case for concentraitng greastest efforts on the formative years before a person ends up in prison.

    I’ve been a registered nurse for 45 years, still going strong in the emergency department at a major Boston hospital. We have an ongoing cohort of patients with drug overdoses, life threatening illnesses caused by substance abuse, and violent injuries sustained in the community or in jail. Concurrent with that job I have also run the clinic at the Pine Street Inn / Long Island Sheler and been the aborion coordinator at Planned Parenthood in Boston.

    Drug users in prison are generaly not first time users. A lifetime of bad genes, bad breaks, and global deprivation have produced heartbreakingly sad individuals. Often they have no education, estranged or destroyed family connections, no or bad employment record, no true friends, no sources of inspiration, extremely poor physical condition, no self-esteem and no life plan.

    (Another cohort which is seperate and terrifying are those who are educated with many other lifetime advantages who try cocaine/heroin/etc as a privileged “lark” and end up seduced, addicted to the high or zomboid state. I am humbled by the horrifying grip of drugs in those instances, and am clueless as to effective intervention.)

    Is it possible to habilitate (as opposed to rehabilitate since we are seeking skills and strengths which they have not had in the past) these individuals and at what cost?

    Each individual needs someone to truly believe in him or her. One individual who truly inspires can change a life, but how many of those life mentors are there?

    Certainly we can start, by taking the impaired into the ED, cutting their filty sodden clothes off, giving them dry pajamas and 3 pairs of hospital socks, hydrating them. Those who can speak often say “detox”. Then we try endlessly to find a detox bed (there are often no empty beds for the many who need them). By the time we find a bed the individuals have dried out, warmed up and are feeling the need to leave and look for their next drink or fix. We have begged them to accept the detox, reminding then how urgently they requested help just hours before. I have rolled them out to a taxi, paid the driver and folded them into the back seat, imploring them to remember that this is another chance to get out of the cold, get help, etc. We often see those individuals back in the ED withn days, after completing their “detox” in 3 days and being discharged still homeless and penniless into the cold. Those with SSDI or some other income may last a bit longer until they have used up their money for drugs and again return to the ED. I do believe elementary school children are savvy and resilient enough to have this information included in a health/science curriculum tract.

    Fast backward, my continuing pitch is for inclusion of family planning information starting in pre-school. Every child has to understand the work of investing in life and the benefits that accrue to those who put forth effort. Structured expectations and rewards must be valued from the first day of school. Children must be helped to begin formualtion of a life plan and intellectual tools to achieve such a plan. Such labor intensive education may involve limited numbers of chldren initially but we have to start at some point.

    Please, everyone, continue sharing your thoughts. I learn from everything that I read, see and hear.

    1. Somehow producing (not just selling) hope, security, and contentment has to be more profitable, or perceived that way.

  17. I just read the book “Coming Apart” and I’m reading the book “The Way Back” now, probably right wing in some ways, but very incite full. Especially Coming Apart’s description of the fictitious towns of Belmont (you be the judge) and Fishtown.

    The books are basically about explaining the why’s of income immobility and inequality and in some ways they are very generous to the underclass, but in a few others they come off as condescending and a little too into class distinction being about virtue vs non-virtue. I agree to a point but I think it might be more about getting caught up in “the system” (who’s that) versus not getting caught.

    “Drug use” is an important subject in both books, but like every thing else in class stratified America, there’s more to it then that.

    I think marijuana laws and restrictions on employment for marijuana users are much more destructive than they are generally given credit for. Employment discrimination against marijuana users is not some Cheech & Chong gag, it’s a real impediment to upward mobility for millions of Americans and ironically is also an impediment to downward mobility of other Americans whose greatest attribute turns out to be that they don’t smoke it and get to stand in the front of the line when government subsidized employment opens up. Put another way, we’d have smarter smart bombs if some of the excellent engineers out there who also smoke pot were allowed to work for the military industrial complex.

    It’s also really stupid, we probably test so much simply because our current technology allows it, the same reason we used invisible ink back in WW I.

    I don’t know if it still does, but at one point my local police force actually listed pot smoking as a form of domestic violence. I just heard that the bogus DEA funded studies on marijuana’s negative impact on driving were just largely debunked, as will be tons of other bogus academic studies about pot when their conclusions are no longer politically correct (that’s a pretty bad lack of academic intergrity really, but eh. it’s only pot.

    Being honest about it, I’ve smoked pot for 40 years on and off, mainly on. In my opinion it is addictive, but so are cigarettes, coffee and tea. It’s over-regulated which makes it more expensive than it should be. It does have a terrible effect on employment though. A few years ago when my business went soft it really got in my way. I had been selling to and contracting off-site for years for company’s that I couldn’t work for, and I couldn’t really explain why, because of Mr Mcain et al’s prohibition. Being excluded from top tier employment because of this discrimination did have a real economic impact on us, as it does on probably millions of other individuals.

    And that does not include criminal prosecutions, which I was lucky enough to avoid. over the years. This probably, understandably, offends a lot of sensibilities but if you’re my age, we probably have disagreed about it since high school and we’re both still here. The world has to lighten up a little on the subject.

      1. Decriminalization without reforming employment discrimination would be flat out anti-intellectual ;-). Although the courts will probably catch it up at the Federal level at some point. Also, if we do legalize marijuana, why does it have to be yet another regulated sin taxed, high barrier to entry, insider scam. Just let the old guy on the corner grow or the unemployed poor kid grow it and sell it with when tomatoes are out of season. I wish we could just drop the ethos of corruption that pervades everything everywhere in this state and country.

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